Kazunori Hamana: Simple vessels of complex self-reflection

by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Contributing Writer

Relaxing in the kitchen of his water-side home in Isumi, a small quiet city in Chiba Prefecture, artist Kazunori Hamana is surrounded by jars of homemade umeboshi (pickled plums) and unusual items from around the world, including a hand-tailored Japanese-style coat, traditional masks and artworks by admired friends.

“Japan is so ugly, so ugly sometimes!” he exclaims, half laughing, but half serious, as he looks out across his balcony to the calm sea. It’s a hot summer’s day and the breeze is welcome; the ugliness he laments seems a world away.

Once a vintage clothing seller in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood, Hamana, inspired by a love for the craftsmanship and deep hues of natural indigo dye, now creates large tsubo (jars) from clay. Though he’s had no formal training — he points to a 16th-century pot when asked who his teacher was — he has become a highly sought-after artist. Selected by Takashi Murakami for a New York exhibition alongside two other Japanese ceramicists, his pieces now sell across the world, either freshly fired or aged for years before being repaired and exhibited in galleries.

Disappointed by the brightly colored megastores, ¥100 shops and convenience stores that are ubiquitous even in his rural town, Hamana worries about the loss of beauty in Japan as easily available goods overtake less-convenient traditional ones. His aversion to a world comfortable with mass-production has been long-seated, but his concepts of beauty are more rustic than the often ornate expectations of society.

“When I was 3 years old, I visited a farmhouse for the first time. I was so shocked, it wasn’t a house … it was beautiful,” Hamana says. His love for the countryside continued and, at the age of 14, rather than following the family trade of architecture, he decided to leave his home in Osaka for a tumbledown farmhouse in rural Hyogo Prefecture, where he cared for thousands of chickens with an elderly couple.

“For me it was like heaven. I loved nature, I was happy,” he recalls.

The farmhouse became his reference for an aged beauty that was slowly being lost, and now he showcases his artwork in run-down local farmhouses, minimally repaired and filled with character.

Intended purely as galleries, the spaces are simple, with natural light streaming in and bat droppings littering the tatami mat floors. His tsubo — large, commanding but delicate vessels — work well in the unusual backdrops, their natural forms and uneven textures a perfect match. The woodwork of the buildings, blackened by years of smoke from the use of traditional irori (sunken hearths), and the crumbling mud walls tell the building’s history, Hamana explains, and this, he says, gives his work a context that white cube galleries cannot.

“When you get older — 30, 40, 50 — the beauty of age gets easier to understand. Your skin and hair change, you see your parents get older — you see history develop like a story. It’s not a bad story, though. it’s like a movie,” he says.

The importance of age and reflection is deeply related to nature, Hamana continues, noting that the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi as pivotal to the idea. Using clay shipped from Shiga Prefecture, he says he is only partly responsible for the outcome of his tsubo.

“Clay is a natural thing; it changes. I don’t want to fight with nature so I follow it,” he says. “At first, I was designing all the time, but I have since stopped. Of course I have an idea, but (the outcome depends) on weather and temperature. I just follow nature.”

Once the firing process is completed, he prefers to leave his work outdoors, either on sun-drenched balconies or in shady bamboo groves. Exposed to seasonal changes, enveloped by plants and occasionally broken, their development continues.

Sometimes cracks are repaired by a local artisan of kintsugi (the craft of repairing ceramics with gold- or silver-dusted lacquer), like a piece left in Hamana’s garden for years after being accidentally dropped by his daughter. This brings the notion of function behind his vase-like tsubo into question. Inspired by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, Hamana says he creates his vessels “with something hidden inside,” and that each has “personality, like a human — not hidden by me, but naturally hidden.”

This human touch reconfirms his concept that, like Giacometti’s works, no piece is finished, but it remains alive — open to the marks and tracks of time. It is a complexity, he says, designed to inspire viewers to consider their own experiences. Created to provoke thought, they encourage a recognition of beauty in unique, imperfect things — much as Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century pioneer of the wabi-cha style of traditional Japanese tea ceremony, sought to do centuries ago.

“We are not born to be convenient, I was not born to go to the ¥100 shop. We were born to see beautiful things,” Hamana says.

He sees the practicality and accessibility of mass-produced items as removing our need to think, be inquisitive and explore. Most importantly, however, he feels they impede an appreciation of everyday life and the beauty it can offer.

Fishing regularly, he embraces the experience of being alone with nature: “I cast the net, I catch beautiful fish and it’s a fantastic experience — nothing like buying fish from a supermarket,” he says. The sharp and salty umeboshi he enjoys are made from fruit picked from the farmhouse garden and dried on the balcony, and he serves fresh plum juice in a cup his daughter made.

While he considers his artwork a hint to its viewers of what they have forgotten to look for in the world, Hamana says his farmhouse locations are equally important. “People still demolish them (farmhouses); they’re so cheap,” he says. “I have to show people how beautiful they can be, how important they are — it’s another side of my work.”

He continues: “My work is like a quiz. I want people to (figure it out and) understand my work. If they do — they will stop buying it to make their own.

“I will lose my job, but I am always looking forward to the next idea.”

To see more of Kazunori Hamana’s work, visit his Instagram @kazunorihamana.